Rifts widen in Maharashtra’s political clans

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As Raj Thackeray took the stage at a rally in Dombivali this election season, he brought the battle for Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s legacy to its lowest point.

“When I visited Balasaheb during his last days, I saw he was served two puny batata vadas. I told him not to eat this oily snack and began sending him chicken soup,” he told the crowd, accusing his cousin and Shiv Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray, of neglecting his father.

In the very first election after Bal Thackeray’s death, the feud between his son Uddhav Thackeray and his nephew Raj, who formed a breakaway outfit eight years ago, has escalated dramatically. Both politicians have used public rallies to attack each other.

Uddhav accused Raj of being a traitor who “stabbed Bal Thackeray in the back” by setting up the rival Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in 2006.

It is clear the two Senas consider each other as the main political adversary. They draw from the same cadre and attract the same vote-bank: Marathi-speaking sons of the soil. Raj Thackeray’s party is just a more militant version, a throwback to what the Shiv Sena used to be when Bal Thackeray was in charge. The battle now is to prove which the real Sena is.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Raj Thackeray had dented the Shiv Sena-BJP’s vote, ensuring its defeat in nine of the State’s 48 constituencies.

This year, he strained its alliance with the BJP after a “secret meeting” with former party president Nitin Gadkari. Now, deciding to back the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, Raj Thackeray has fielded candidates mainly against the Shiv Sena.

While the BJP is hedging its bets on which cousin to ally with in the future, it is clear that any talk of drawing both Thackerays into a grand alliance is futile. The two parties share the same ideology and cadre. By getting into an alliance, they stand to lose their following to the other.

NCP’s succession wars

It’s not just the Shiv Sena which is witnessing a generational churn. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is also struggling with its succession plan. At 73, NCP chief Sharad Pawar has bowed out of electoral politics. His main task in this high octane election is to keep his party nationally relevant. With the party down to eight seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Mr. Pawar has led a gruelling campaign this year.

Much like the Raj Thackeray story, Mr. Pawar had initially groomed his nephew Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar as his political successor. The younger politician developed a hold on the party and served in successive State Cabinets. However, in 2006, two years after undergoing cancer surgery, Sharad Pawar brought his only daughter Supriya Sule into politics. She is now the sitting MP from his pocket borough Baramati.

Ms. Sule’s entry raised questions about who would become the NCP chief’s political heir. Ajit Pawar started becoming impatient and in 2009, edged out his uncle’s nominee Chhagan Bhujbal to wrest the post of Deputy Chief Minister.

Both Ms. Sule and Mr Sharad Pawar dismiss reports of a divide in the party’s Gen Next. “This is humbug and wrong propaganda,” Mr. Pawar told The Hindu. Ms. Sule too says she is happy to focus on national politics and leave State politics to her cousin.

Handling his ambitious nephew who is known for his rough ways is becoming a challenge for Mr Sharad Pawar. Mr. Ajit Pawar’s image has also been tainted by the multi-crore irrigation scam which led to his resignation as Deputy Chief Minister in 2012. His controversial utterances including alleged threats to voters have left the party defensive.

Mr Ajit Pawar’s rise has also seen the sidelining of the party’s old guard including Mr. Bhujbal, a former Shiv Sainik. He has been edged out of State politics and is now contesting his first parliamentary election, reportedly against his will.

Regional aspirants

The party’s succession plans also have to accommodate powerful regional satraps from the sugar belt of western Maharashtra, who await their place in the sun. “The NCP is full of young leaders who are powerful in their regions. In fact, it’s surprising the NCP chief has managed to keep the peace so far,” says political scientist Suhas Palshikar.

Beyond the Lok Sabha polls, the Shiv Sena, the MNS and the NCP are looking ahead to the Assembly elections in October. By then the dynastic duels are only set to intensify.

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